British director Ken Russell passed away in 2011 leaving behind a life’s work devoted to filmmaking at its most exuberant and vital. Russell made a number of films in the early part of his career which depicted artists brimming with the same enthusiasm of expression as the director himself. The Great Passions is one of two collections which the BFI are releasing to honour his distinctive approach to the biographical form. The three films collected here are dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Dante’s Inferno), Isadora Duncan (Isadora) and Henri Rousseau (Always On Sunday) – three artists whose eccentricity provide a perfect foil to Russell’s own bravura style.
In Dante’s Inferno, Russell shows us Rossetti (Oliver Reed) as a brooding live wire chasing around in imitation of the chivalrous knights which he and the other Pre-Raphaelites so admired; he paints or he writes to pay his bills and fuel his passions, and this informs the story’s crux – his fraught relationship with artist and model Elizabeth Siddal (Judith Paris). Isadora tells the story of visionary dancer Isadora Duncan (Vivian Pickles) whose life seems to rush hither and yon with the same half-crazed energy that propelled her dancing and made her a star. Always On Sunday explains how Rousseau (James Lloyd) – a retired civil servant – took up painting full-time at the age of fifty and withstood a lengthy period of critical mockery in order to arrive at a hard-won position of artistic respectability by the time of his late sixties.
Isadora and Dante’s Inferno are sensuous and frantic; both films are filled with scenes of running, chasing and dancing that sometimes give way to sudden close-ups of the actors and the unusual set- dressing. Since Always On Sunday is a story of patience and humble determination, it proceeds in a more leisurely fashion, only exploding into life with the arrival of bohemian characters like Alfred Jarry (Annette Robertson). What remains constant in all three is Russell’s eye for a composition and his sense of mischief, his general air of flamboyance. The Great Passions is a spellbinding collection which matches a legend of British cinema to the fellow artists who enabled and inspired his own unique vision.